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Library 101: How To Use Western Library In-Person & Online

A quick-start guide to finding library sources for your assignments.

Create a List of Search Terms (and Alternates) for Your Topic

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Figuring out the right search terms is a key part of conducting an effective search whether you are using library databases or searching the web. The process for developing good search terms is the same for both


How do I know what words to enter into a Search Box?

You may be assigned a topic to research or you may be asked to choose your own. Your topic will be your starting point in choosing search terms.note-taking icon

  • Types of search terms: 
    • keywords - a general list words related to your topic.
    • subject searches - words listed or bolded database lists
      • nouns - the names of something or someone -- people, things, places
        •  example - nouns for a topic in psychology: "depression,"  "bipolar disorder," "schizophrenia."
  • Make a list of main search terms 
  • Create a list of alternate search termssynonyms (different words that mean the same thing)
    • WHY? Different authors will use different terms that mean the same thing so If you can't find enough information using one search term, another
    • Consult a Thesaurus to find related or alternative words or synonyms.  

Basic and Advanced Searches

Will I find enough information just doing a simple search?
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  •  Very likely if your topic is broad.
    • Use the single Basic Search box you see when a database opens.
    • Type in a search term or phrase. Remember - nouns work best.


  • Keywords - depression, bipolar,  autism
  • Phrases - "mental health" -  try enclose phrases in quotation marks if you get wonky results
  • Subjects - link from subject words in the database 

data iconWhy do I see 3 search boxes on a page sometimes? 

  • This is the Advanced Search tool
    • Advanced searching lets you combine search terms. (This is why making list is a good idea!)
  • When you get tens of thousands of results, advanced searching can help you narrow down the results
  • You may never need to use Advanced Search strategies, but it's an option if you are having trouble finding the right information.

Two Advanced Search Strategies to Try

  • Boolean Searching - separate search terms with AND, OR, or NOT
    • depression AND hopelessness
      • finds results with both search terms
      • narrows results
    • (mania OR insomnia) AND "depressive episode"
      • finds results for either search term specific to climate change
      • place the OR terms in parenthesis as a signal to the database to search variations on the similar concepts
      • expands results
    • depression NOT financial
      • finds results in mental health categories not the historical period of the Great Depression
  • Truncation - do one search instead of several by using the root of a word plus the * symbol
    • depress*
      • finds articles than contain words beginning with the root "depress" - depression, depressive, depressing, depressed, etc.

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